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Online Learning: Common Struggles for Diverse Learners

Jennifer Sullivan

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For students who think and learn differently, education can be a struggle in general. When learning takes place in a virtual environment, students’ learning challenges can be exacerbated.

Students who were familiar with talking to a teacher and asking for help in person now need to write an email and wait for a professor’s virtual office hours. Students who excelled in classroom group projects and hands-on activities now need to “do school” entirely on a computer.

If you're the parent of a high school or college student who is learning remotely this year and they're frustrated, they are not alone! Here are five common struggles that diverse learners might have during online learning and how you can support them.

1. “I have trouble keeping track of time, and underestimate (or overestimate) how much time things take.”

Different environments signal to our brain that it's time to shift gears and stop working on one subject and switch to another. Students who struggle with executive functioning skills (organization, time management, prioritization, task initiation) often find it challenging to organize their time without physical indicators such as a school bell, moving from classroom to classroom, etc.

During the first week or two of class, I encourage students to use a timer to record how long they are working on each subject. Your teen may be surprised to learn they can complete an assignment in 30 minutes when it feels like it takes three hours!

Conversely, after recording their time spent, students may realize that one subject is consuming the majority of their time. This "investigation" can help students create a realistic picture of time. Then a plan can be made to help them allocate and prioritize their time.

Learning remotely can make time seem intangible. Tools to help students “feel” the passing of time are important. Teens can set alarms on their phone, use a voice-activated assistant to set alarms, or use computer timer apps.

2. “I feel unmotivated and unfocused taking class online.”

If your student feels unmotivated, try offering this advice: "Pretend that you're physically going to class and prepare in the same way you would as if you were on campus or in a classroom." In other words,

  1. Wake up in the morning and shower
  2. Get dressed in clothes (that aren’t pajamas)
  3. Gather your materials (binders, computer, textbooks)
  4. Have breakfast, coffee, etc.

We need to train our body in daily routines using external signals such as changing our clothes or sitting in a location in our house that we sit at only when it is time for “school.” Encourage your teen to create (and stick to) a morning routine.

Diverse learners can also be particularly sensitive to (and hyper aware of) common distractions at home. Other siblings in the house who are also learning at home, family pets, or noises such as the neighbor’s lawn mower can be distracting. I encourage students to invest in a good pair of noise cancelling headphones, or allow your teen to listen to music while working — this is one of the perks of not being in the classroom!

And parents, sometimes we are a distraction. We unintentionally create blurred home/school boundaries when talking to our teens or asking them family-related questions such as “Did you do your laundry?” or “What do you want for dinner?” during their school or class time. It can be hard for parents and other family members to know when a student is “on” or “off,” when they are “in class” or “just hanging out.”

We may be able to set those boundaries as adults (for example, if we are working at home), but your teen may struggle to do this. If they can’t physically separate themselves at home, a sign can help them set boundaries with others in your home. One creative strategy is to create a color-coded card that designates when your teenager is “in class” and unavailable. A green card signals that your teen is working but able to be interrupted for a quick question. A red card indicates they are in class and not available.

3. “I’m overwhelmed by everything I need to do.”

Time management is one of the most common struggles for diverse learners taking class online. Without physical boundaries or physical location changes it can be hard for students to organize their thoughts and time and know when to switch their attention from one subject to another.

I recommend that students create a schedule to help manage their time. Online calendars such as Free College Schedule Maker are great for visual learners who like to color code their classes and appointments. Colleges like Rochester Institute of Technology have academic success centers with free time management resources available on their website. Using an online calendar such as Google Calendar can be effective as well, but I do prefer calendars that can be printed and hung on a wall, readily accessible and visible 100% of the time in a student’s home “school space.”

Starting with a brain dump at the beginning of each day can help students empty their mind of all of their to-dos. Once the list is created, they can take the next step to prioritize the tasks. One tool to organize and prioritize items by urgency and importance is the Eisenhower Matrix.

4. “Once I sit down to work, I have trouble getting started."

Research shows that our brains are the most alert for a period of time after we wake up in the morning and we are least alert when neurotransmitters decrease around 3:00 p.m. For this reason, your student should take advantage of their body's natural rhythm and do difficult assignments or urgent tasks in the morning.

It also can be advantageous for them to record their body’s energy and alertness during the day. Using a notebook or notepad app on their phone can help them determine when they're most alert and focused and then complete homework during this time.

Another strategy to getting started is for your teen to share their goals for the day or week with a parent, classmate or friend. Accountability is such an important and motivating tool for students who struggle with initiating tasks. Verbally saying goals out loud can inspire persistence to a task. Parents, you could ask your teen to identify two goals for the day and write them down or share them with you. At the end of the school day, ask them to reflect on whether they met their goals, and if not, create a new list to carry over a goal(s) to the next day.

5. “I feel like I should be working constantly. I'm gonna burn out."

Diverse learners can sometimes hyper focus on tasks or projects to the point of burning themselves out. Teens with anxiety may feel guilty about taking breaks from coursework or think that breaks are ineffective and cause them to lose precious homework time.

According to this article in Psychology Today, the truth is that people who take short breaks are more productive and can get more done in less time! I remind students that brain breaks are not just important, they're necessary. Our brains needs to rest and switch gears to another topic — for example, transitioning from a reading task to a hands-on project such as making flashcards. Taking breaks is important, and going for a walk outside or even making lunch/dinner is necessary when learning remotely.

The nature of online learning puts many unique demands on students.

Increased online academic responsibilities can feel overwhelming for diverse thinking students in particular. By minimizing distractions, creating structured morning routines and using visual calendars and timers, all students can create habits for a successful semester online!

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Jennifer Sullivan, M.S. is a private executive functioning coach for high school and college students and the founder of Fast Forward College Coaching. Jennifer lives in southeastern CT and helps students across the country improve their time management and organization skills. Jennifer currently teaches at UCONN in the Neag School of Education. She and her husband are the parents of two teenagers. Find more or her expert advice in her book, Sharing the Transition to College: Words of Advice for Diverse Learners and their Families.
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